Judith M. Dinsmore
The Lion in the Waste Land: Fearsome Redemption in the Work of C. S. Lewis, Dorothy L. Sayers, and C. S. Eliot, by Janice Brown. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2018, 216 pages, $45.00.
In The Lion in the Waste Land, Janice Brown, who taught literature at Grove City College for two decades, draws together the prominent works of literary giants and contemporaries Dorothy Sayers, C. S. Lewis, and T. S. Eliot, and considers them in context of these themes: Christ, conversion, angelic interference, redemptive suffering during World War II, pilgrimage, and redeeming the times. “I believe that the key ideas of Lewis, Sayers, and Eliot are most powerful when considered simultaneously,” she writes on the last page of the book. Given the breadth and variety of the three authors’ output, Brown’s work is ambitious and her transitions from the ideas in one work to the next occasionally seem contrived, but she does ably demonstrate, especially in her line-by-line expositions, the shared Christian imagination that fired these three. And by so doing, she fires our own.
Brown first describes the actual relationship of the three authors, which is a story quickly told. They ran in different circles. C. S. Lewis (1898–1963) was an Oxford professor and author of The Chronicles of Narnia but also numerous apologetic essays and a science fiction trilogy. Dorothy Sayers (1893–1957) began as a writer of detective fiction but, during World War II, became known for her Christian drama—most famously, The Man Born to Be King. (Sayers was the sole subject of Brown’s previous book.) T. S. Eliot (1888–1965) was a poet and literary critic living in London as an American expatriate. Sayers and Lewis became friends and correspondents, but Sayers venerated Eliot only from afar, and Lewis in his early career mocked Eliot’s modernity. Alluding to the first lines Eliot’s famous 1915 poem “Love-Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” Lewis wrote, “For twenty years I’ve stared my level best / To see if evening—any evening—would suggest / A patient etherized upon a table” (10). After Eliot’s conversion to Christianity, however, their relationship, always professional, grew warmer.
As Brown records, the tempest of the Blitz and World War II shook all three out of the shelves they likely would have perched on indefinitely. It was the “crucible in which the prophetic function of Lewis, Eliot, and Sayers was refined and focused” (162). They became apologists for the faith, in print and on the radio.
Though Lewis, Eliot, and Sayers made no claim to speak for the church in any official capacity, their words rang with authority. The essays and lectures they produced in response to the war were not precisely “theological” in nature, yet they were shoring up and rebuilding something that had been crumbling into ruin—Christian witness in the midst of a secular culture. (170)
This came at a personal cost: The Blitz pulled T. S. Eliot, the consummate gentleman of letters, onto the streets as an air raid warden to patrol London on foot all night before heading to the office in the morning. (What he saw on patrol fed the images that later appeared in “Little Gidding.”) Lewis’s wartime writing and speaking on religion, which was not his subject of study, “meant the loss of the approval of his Oxford colleagues” (200). He was never given the promotion to full professorship that he deserved, Brown claims.
These three were apologists for the faith out of compulsion, each in their own way crying out against a culture gone wrong. But their vocation was always art. Brown draws out that difference: “Their apologetic effectiveness was the greatest the modern world had seen; yet … to point people to Christ through pictures, symbols, and stories was their highest calling” (62).
In explaining how these authors’ texts are drenched in biblical imagery, Brown is at her best. For example, she demonstrates how one angelic being in Sayers’s play The Zeal of Thy House carries out duties of account-keeping and calculation-making that is similar to the angel measuring the house of God in Ezekiel 40–47 and the angel measuring Jerusalem in Zechariah 2. “The angels’ painstaking verification of physical dimensions indicates God’s familiarity with minute details,” Brown writes (120). For another example, Brown connects a scene from C. S. Lewis’s Perelandra in which the eldila, an other-worldly being, is attempting a form that the mortal protagonist can handle and appears as rolling concentric wheels (135–36) with the angelic beings in Ezekiel 1:16, “their appearance and construction [is] as it were a wheel within a wheel,” and then with Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral: “that the wheel may turn and still / Be forever still” (140). “Eliot’s wheel imagery harmonizes with the imagery of Lewis and Ezekiel, in which wheels represent the relentless and inscrutable purposes of God” (140).
Calvinists will quibble with Brown’s soteriology. She seems to push too hard to see conversion in the texts as “choosing to be the chosen of God” (88–91).
What do these authors matter to us now? Their apologetic works are exemplary and still worth reading, to be sure, although written for a different era. But I don’t think Brown wrote The Lion in the Waste Land to display anything but the incredible Christian imaginations of Sayers, Eliot, and Lewis. Their images, built on their not-slight knowledge of biblical imagery and Christian tradition, bring the unseen spiritual conflict all around us within our ken. The Waste Land of the modern world, Christ as a fearsome Lion, Christ as a wounded surgeon, conversion as being devoured by three white leopards (103), angels as troubling guests at a cocktail party (149), our lives as a pilgrimage—all these images ripple with meaning and help us to truly see, silencing the images that scream falsehoods from our screens and our earbuds. They speak powerfully to the horror-struck or broken-hearted. Pastors and teachers do well to imagine well: “Although preaching is a didactic form of rhetoric, seeking to teach and persuade through reasoned argument, preaching may also employ the imaginative devices of poetry, like metaphorical language and pictorial images” (34).
World War II came unexpectedly and terribly to England in 1940; we don’t know what will come unexpectedly and terribly to us, personally or nationally. When it comes, we need, not just the terms redemptive suffering or perseverance of the saints, but also the lines “three trees on the low sky” and “no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, / With an alien people clutching their gods. / I should be glad of another death” (218).
Judith M. Dinsmore is a member of Providence Presbyterian Church, Robinson, Pennsylvania, and is managing editor of New Horizons. Ordained Servant Online, February 2020.